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COHA: The Colombian Civil War

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Thursday, June 7th, 2007
Colombia, Reports, Front Page

The Colombian Civil War: Uribe Now In Washington In A Move That May Make Or Break His Presidency

- Uribe’s termination of extradition to the U.S. on drug-related charges, all but ends Washington’s phase of its Anti-Drug War

- Uribe seeks enactment of free trade and hundreds of millions of dollars more in anti-drug and anti-insurgent funds to further waste in Colombia’s lost cause

Colombia is not short of attention in the West, holding the distinction of being the third biggest recipient of U.S. aid in the world. Right now, to President Alvaro Uribe’s invariable great distress, worldwide discussion of his country is almost entirely focused on a semi-covert war that has lasted for decades and has cost thousands of lives and huge sums of money – much of it from the U.S. Also very much on Uribe’s mind is the hoped-for passage by the U.S. Congress of a bilateral free trade agreement between Washington and Bogotá. Over the years the anti-drug and anti-terrorist conflict has pinned the government’s security forces as well as earmarked huge resources against leftist guerrillas, with additional players in this drama being the drug cartels, paramilitary squads, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Pentagon all playing important roles. However, after almost five decades into this conflict, the commander of the Colombian army determined several years ago that the armed forces were incapable of achieving a military victory over the country’s leftist insurgents. There is little reason to believe that the ongoing conflict will be conclusively resolved anytime soon, certainly not by force of arms.

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Six years into his presidency, Alvaro Uribe’s Washington-backed aggressive military strategy has yet to be proven to be an effective vehicle for defeating the leftist rebels. Although occasionally the Colombian military also has battled the right wing paramilitary, by far the brunt of its deployment has been against the leftist rebels. As Uribe returns to Washington, only a few weeks after a previous visit, it is widely believed that while meeting with White House policymakers and congressional leaders, Uribe will have to confront the grim legacy that he has compiled in terms of scandals and the misuse of U.S. funds. Many members of the U.S. Congress insist that these delinquencies alone should disqualify him from receiving U.S. funds or free trade status at this time. Colombia will have no easy task of continuing its record as being the third largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world due to the fierce opposition of a number of U.S. senators, led by Patrick Leahy (Dem-VT), who have grown skeptical of Uribe’s constant scandals, and human rights violations in the drug war. However, economics will also be on the mind of the Colombian leader, as he focuses on getting the recently signed bilateral free trade agreement through a very doubting U.S. Congress. After decades of a largely fruitless war, corruption and pointless surges that dissipated as quickly as they formulated, it is questionable whether a military option remains a viable model for ending the Colombian civil war. Particularly because the price of cocaine (of which Colombia leads the world in its production), is particularly low at this time, indicating that the U.S. market is now surfeited with the illicit substance.

Peace through War
Uribe has resorted to an aggressive military scenario to deal with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), the country’s two guerrilla groups. In spite of all the setbacks, he seems to have the backing of most Colombians who, in spite of decades of bloodshed with few successes, first chose him in 2002, knowing full well that he preferred to fight rather than negotiate with the leftist guerillas, and had maintained longstanding links to the country’s deadly right wing paramilitary forces.

But does a military solution really exist? What is not commonly being discussed is the strength and potency of the Colombian military. The country fields about 145,000 troops – conscription is mandatory (24 months for the army and navy, and 12 months for the air force – but, as often is the case in Latin America, in practice it is only the young men coming from lower socio-economic families who are obliged to participate. Because of the protracted length of the war, in one form or another, most of the upper cadre of the Colombian military have had years of battle experiences to pass on to younger generations of recruits. Much of that legacy has consisted of unspeakable but thoroughly documented atrocities against innocent civilians, particularly in rural regions of the country. Many of these were so brutal that, due to existing legislation at the time of the Clinton presidency, a number of Colombian battalions were disqualified from receiving U.S. military assistance.

Colombia’s defense budget is around $3.5 billion, which represents around 3.5 percent of the country’s GDP. Its military’s equipment is a combination of obsolete and modern weaponry, to a large extent being donated or sold at discounted prices to Bogotá by the Pentagon, the premier supplier of the Colombian armed forces. In recent years, military deliveries have included helicopters like the famous UH-60/A/Ls Blackhawks, and Bell 212s, as well as transport aircraft such as the C-130B/E/Hs. Because its major security threat is internal rather than external, the Colombian army possesses as many as 47 counter guerrilla battalions for local applications.

The Rebels
On their side, the FARC and ELN also have had extensive battle experience, even though their numbers and weaponry are modest when compared to the Colombian military’s inventory. Both organizations rely on guerrilla warfare tactics to avoid large scale attacks, focus on ambushes, live off the land and use of camouflage to keep the government forces as far as possible from their staging areas. They are able to piece together good revenue from ransom after abduction, protection services and coca growing, which is the insurgents’ major source of income.

The rebel’s equipment basically consists of Kalishinkov rifles and other small arms and light equipment. In spite of the relative crudeness of much of its weaponry and simplicity of its tactics, the FARC, in particular, is surprisingly effective at inflicting heavy casualties. A recent example of its military prowess was displayed in early May, in the southeast region of Tulua, when ten Colombian special forces soldiers died and 15 others were injured when a truck in which they were riding blew up as the result of a roadside bomb. The attack has been attributed to the FARC.

Both the ELN and the FARC have traditionally financed their activity through such arrangements as drug trafficking and extortion. It is known that the FARC practices a military-style organization which breaks its cadres into six regional “blocs” across the country, with the troops then being further subdivided into “fronts.” The “blocs” answer to the FARC’s leadership council known as the “Secretariat.” The FARC numbers anywhere between 16,000 and 20,000 fighting forces and the ELN around 5,000, with both groups accepting women into combat units. In an interview with COHA, Maurizio Tinnirello, specialist in Colombia and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kent in the UK, explained that, “if all the leadership of the FARC would be arrested then it is probable that it could lose its uniting glue and purpose and it might break into several criminal organizations or guerrilla organizations with different aims.” In an interview with COHA, James Zackrison, Research Director for the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies*, explains that: “the FARC is unique in Latin American insurgencies in that it is institutionalized, that is, it is not dependent on one single leader It might be possible to negotiate with individual fronts, thus dividing the organization as a whole, but I’ve not seen any success in this regard to date.”

Regarding the ELN, Dr. Zackrison explains that it “to some extent resembles the FARC because it divides its forces into fronts, but this is more of an organizational issue than it is structural. The leadership is individual; the death of Father Manuel Pérez (El Cura Pérez) in 1998 affected the group’s cohesion, until Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (Gabino) was able to take over the reins and consolidate power.”

It is becoming increasingly apparent that many individuals, after five decades of bitter conflict, join such movements as the FARC because they share these organizations’ long forgotten ideals of creating a Communist/Maoist society by overthrowing Washington’s client government of the hour. A March-April 2007 article in Military Review by Thomas Marks explains that “committed ideologically to Marxism-Leninism, FARC ha[s] increasingly drifted to a vaguely defined “Bolivarian” populism that has had little appeal in Colombia.” Marks goes on to explain that the FARC’s approach to insurgency, modeled after a “people’s war” variant of Vietnamese military doctrine, which after being filtered through the Colombian milieu, has now become a perversion of the original and today has more in common with the focismo of Che Guevara than Maoist armed political action built upon mass mobilization.

There are several reasons to join the FARC. A 2000 article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists quotes a Colombian talking about the small number of options that poor youngsters have available to them in their impoverished neighborhoods: “they join the army, they join the guerrillas or they join the paramilitaries. In Curillo there are 300 unemployed men, who will give them work? At least in the guerrillas they give you food and clothes.” In an interview with COHA, Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that “few people join the FARC for ideological commitment, the most common reasons are personal, like looking for a sense of belonging, identification with a group, revenge and personal connections.” Tinnirello who here differs from other specialists in the field, adds that the ELN and FARC do not pay excessively well, around the general area of a minimum salary, more or less $400,000 pesos or about US$200 dollars monthly.

It is also known that the FARC has penetrated the Peruvian jungle on several occasions in recent years, hiring poor campesinos found living on the border. A final important fact to mention is that while the FARC and ELN fight for arguably common goals – i.e. the protection of Colombia’s poor and keeping the government off-balance – they are not particularly close-knit allies.

The Paramilitaries
A critical factor in the Colombian conflict was the creation of the right wing paramilitary, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) in the early 1980s under the leadership of Carlos and Fidel Castano. Officially, the origin of the AUC dates back to between 1965 and 1968, when the Colombian government enacted legislation allowing the military to arm civilians in order to counter leftist guerrilla initiatives.

Throughout its existence, the AUC has not been under direct control of the military or local civic authorities; however, they often aggressively coordinated the attacks against the FARC and ELN and it is well known that key members of the Colombian government and especially members of the military, collaborate, or at least sympathize with them. A 2000 NACLA Report on the Americas authored by Nazih Richani, found that the Colombian military had encouraged the formation of “civilian” armed groups. The NACLA publication explained that “as the executive branch [under President Belisario Betancourt] was extending an olive branch to the guerrilla organizations […] the military was organizing paramilitary forces to defeat the insurgencies, [this divorce between the government and the military] contributed to the failure to hammer out an accord with the FARC.” Like the FARC, the AUC also generated much of their funding from drug trafficking. The aforementioned 2000 NACLA report pointed out that the paramilitaries had three major sources of income:

- They taxed small businesses as well as multinational corporations whose operations fell in areas under their territorial control.
- They collected contributions from large landowners and cattle ranchers.
- They trafficked in illegal drugs. In 1999, the government discovered one of the country’s largest cocaine-processing complexes in Puerto Boyaca, believed to have operated under the protection of the AUC.

Between 2003 and 2004, the government and the AUC initiated a peace process, which ultimately led to the demobilization of a purported 31,000 paramilitants. In spite of the profound magnitude of this demobilization, it is widely believed that there are many small paramilitary groups still active. There is also a strong belief that non-AUC drug traffickers purposely took advantage of Uribe’s casual and embarrassingly lenient demobilization terms and to slip under the wire of respectability with their cocaine earnings safely remaining in their pockets and where they can easily manage to continue to launder their illicit profits.

Last April, Judith Vergara, a community leader, was murdered in Medellin. Different organizations have accused paramilitary death squads of being responsible for her death, as well as that of Hayder Ramirez, who was also gunned down in Medellín in August 2006. It is believed that the Colombian military continues to have links with the remnants of the paramilitaries that are still engaged in fighting and drug trafficking.

In early January, army Colonel Hernán Mejía was relieved from his post as battalion commander because it was discovered that he had indisputable links with a paramilitary leader known as Jorge 40. Dr. Felbab-Brown, said that “we have yet to see if the demobilization of the AUC will be successful, as there is numerous evidence of new paramilitary groups like the ‘Aguilas Negras.’” The Aguilas Negras, according to an October 2006 article published in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, are former paramilitary members who never laid down their weapons and are now involved in organized crime. The group is thought to already have over 1,000 members and operates in the regions of Cúcuta, Chinácota, El Tarra, Tibú, Zulia and Puerto Santander.

The U.S. in Colombia

For decades the U.S. has been involved in the Colombian civil war in one form or another, most recently as the inspirational factor behind the controversial Plan Colombia. However, what is not so well known is the degree of the U.S. military presence in that country aimed at facilitating Bogota’s war against leftist rebels as well as its purported prime target – drug traffickers. American intelligence forces first gained notoriety in Colombia in the early 1990s when U.S. and Colombian intelligence and security forces tracked down the infamous Medellín drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. In fact, many have speculated that it was an American sniper who actually shot and killed him.

In 2003, the U.S. command committed around 100 members of its Special Forces for Colombia, thus deploying for a brief period an aggregate in all categories of U.S. military personnel of up to 400 troops. Other reports put the usual number of American troops in the country at any given time between 200 and 300 U.S. personnel in all categories. Among these are mostly Special Forces trainers, intelligence officers and radar technicians. Training is focused on instructing anti-narcotics units, but also includes offering various combat techniques, including river combat courses which U.S. instructors have provided to Colombian commandos in Puerto Leguizamo. The rules of engagement do not allow American personnel to go into combat zones with the Colombian military, but rather, they are supposed to be limited to training operations, although minor infractions of these regulations have from time to time occurred. The military base in Tolemaida, one of the main facilities where the U.S. military and American private contractors are stationed, is also the site for the location of a squadron of lethal Blackhawk helicopters. Regarding America’s aid over the years to Colombia, Tinnirello argues that: “it is more of an embarrassment that with all the U.S. high tech aid such as AWACKS planes they still have no idea where the leadership of the FARC actually is!”

Besides American military personnel, there are a significant number of American nationals, including retired U.S. military personnel who work for U.S. private military contractors, like DynCorp. Pilots from this company have been accused by the Ecuadoran authorities of flying into its territory while carrying out fumigation missions as part of the Colombian anti-drug program.

A major impediment for a final peace agreement between the leftist rebels and the Colombian government is the fear that, if they lay down their weapons, there will be inevitable reprisals against them. Here is where a major fiction has been allowed to exist. Although the White House and the Uribe government consistently have maintained that the leftist ELN, FARC guerrillas, and the right wing AUC paramilitaries are all “terrorist” groups and are candidates to be hunted down, killed or captured; in fact, treatment of these groups couldn’t be different.

The AUC is the enemy of the FARC and the ELN, the friend of the Colombian military and has been much more kindly considered by the U.S. than the leftist groups. Specialists have insisted that in order for the FARC and the ELN to be persuaded to demobilize, the AUC needs to first lay down its weapons. The worst possible example of an attempted demobilization of this sort was when Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla movement chose to demobilize in the late 1980s. The downside of their decision to lay down their arms was the systematic reprisal taken them after they had disarmed. For example, a former guerrilla commander, Carlos Pizarro, while traveling aboard an internal airline flight in 1990, was murdered by assassins, supposedly on the orders of paramilitary leaders. At the time of his murder, Pizarro was running as a civilian presidential candidate who had reintegrated himself into the country’s electoral process – he was only one of scores of former fellow M-19 officials running for legislative and local government positions who were assassinated by AUC and military death squads.

In a similar manner, henchmen of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar were killed one-by-one by Los Pepes, a band of murderers believed to have been recruited from both the Colombian military and paramilitary movements, who were seeking to avenge crimes carried out by drug cartels and the leftist rebels. In view of this grim legacy, it is hard to imagine that any members of the FARC or ELN, especially among their highest strata of leadership, will decide to, or be allowed to, voluntarily demobilize and attempt to return to civilian life because they believe that they are likely to be murdered by paramilitary death squads and that the government would not, or could not, intervene. Dr. Zackrison explained to COHA that the problem with the M-19 precedent “is the very issue that allows these groups to thrive in Colombia and also makes it difficult for them to re-integrate into society. The government is simply incapable of guaranteeing their safety – but this is true for everyone who lives in Colombia, not just for those who demobilize insurgencies.”

Extradition & Amnesty
Another issue has to do with Bogota’s extradition and amnesty policy. Uribe’s deal with the AUC was a dangerous move for him and the country to make as it essentially meant that in exchange for demobilization of the paramilitary force, the Colombian government would guarantee to no longer extradite indicted members to the U.S. Moreover, they would receive lenient prison sentences back home as well as only token fines and restitution, or non at all, for crimes that its members acknowledged committing. This sets a perilous precedent for any future negotiations with the FARC, ELN, and the drug cartels, who might want to make similar arrangements with Bogota in order to lay down their weapons, for only a nominal price to pay. However, to bring an end to the Colombian civil war, some of the former rebels and AUC members must go to jail, even though they probably will end up serving only light sentences. Due to the crimes perpetrated by both sides, it would be an insult to the memories of those innocent civilians whom they had murdered if none of the FARC’s and ELN’s senior core went to jail or were given only token sentences.

But what about the gentle treatment of AUC paramilitaries, when even the U.S. acknowledges that right-wing felons killed many more civilians than their leftist counterparts, not to mention that it would be almost political suicide for any Colombian administration to try to act tough when it came to AUC remnants? Dr. Felbab-Brown, argues that “it was necessary for Uribe to use the non-extradition card with the AUC as, without it, the paramilitaries would have had no reason to enter negotiations as they were under no military pressure.” She adds that “the non-extradition deal was a necessary element of the negotiations [between the government and the AUC] and inevitable.” For Dr. Zackrison, “President Uribe has sought a Colombian solution to a Colombian problem, and that is a normal and admirable stance. He offered the AUC an opening to a solution they could accept, which any responsible national leader would do.” Of another point of view is Colombian specialist Maurizio Tinnirello, who told COHA that “the non-extradition deal for AUC bosses was purely a political strategy to successfully demobilized the AUC […] due the Peace and Justice Law, it can not really provide justice as the maximum sentences the AUC leaders can receive are 10 years each. A very light sentence considering they have been the worst violators of human rights in Colombia and probably one of the biggest in the world.”

Other issues arise from the necessity of demanding jail time for ELN and FARC members guilty of human right derelictions, which cannot even be discussed unless former AUC members, who have been found guilty or confessed their crimes, serve time for their unspeakable atrocities, including heinous massacres, which were an AUC specialty. For Colombian specialist Tinnirello “if peace negotiations, or at least a demobilization process, could be achieve with the ELN and FARC, it is likely that they would ask for a similar treatment as the AUC.”

What actually will be AUC’s fate when almost daily scandals are disclosed of paramilitaries being directly linked to Uribe’s ruling party, with whom the paramilitaries have entered into. But the question remains about how many of the estimated 16,000 FARC or 4,000 ELN fighters should go to prison? The senior leadership like “Sureshot” Marulanda? Foot soldiers? How can it be determined which rebels were participants in a particular operation in which Colombian soldiers or civilians were killed? The road to peace is long and treacherous, but it is entirely clear that Uribe’s bona fides are far from the highest and his motives remain very much in doubt.

In addition, there is the issue of extradition. The Colombian penal system is known for its megalithic corruption and porosity, making it almost a certainty that any well-placed former AUC rebel or major drug trafficker who is sent to a Colombian jail will either be granted immunity, have an opportunity to escape, or be awarded early release. The textbook case of this occurred when Pablo Escobar, along with some of his senior henchmen, were sent to a Colombian prison instead of being extradited to the U.S. Dan Brown’s “Killing Pablo” has well documented the deluxe life that Escobar enjoyed in a prison specifically built for him complete with TVs, majestic beds, alcohol, parties with women brought in for entertainment and recreation, along with handsomely bribed prison guards serving as waiters.

Unfortunately, with Uribe’s non-extradition deal with the AUC, this might mean that hard jail time for drug traffickers and guerrillas, where punishment equals the crime, may be only an illusion.

Is a military solution possible?
With the episodic support of the partially mobilized paramilitary units, the U.S. and several regional governments (except, of course, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia), giving moral and physical support to Colombia in the war to defeat the leftist rebels, is a military solution possible? In theory, a major offensive could eventually lead to a military defeat of the FARC and ELN. Then capture of its major leaders would certainly be an advance for the government. Little is known of the hierarchy of the FARC or if one captured leader could bring the entire organization down, as was largely the case with Sendero Luminoso in Peru. However, it is noteworthy that several high level FARC and ELN leaders have been killed or apprehended in recent years and this has not visibly undermined either group.

In any case, it is dubious that the FARC and ELN could be readily defeated. Dr. Felbab-Brown, said that “under current conditions, the Colombian conflict cannot be solved militarily, as the Colombian army does not have the strength to defeat the guerillas.” She goes on to explain that: “a key component that the Colombian military lacks is intelligence, meaning tactical human intelligence as well as strategic intelligence about the Colombian guerillas, like their overall goals.”

In addition, as explained to COHA by a Peruvian intelligence officer, “if the Colombian military could defeat the FARC and ELN, even with the help of the AUC and the U.S., it would have done so by now.” The Peruvian officer went on to explain that Uribe’s military strategy may be more bark than bite, as there have been no major offensives against guerilla headquarters in years. The Peruvian operative speculated that Uribe may not trust his military as much as he claims to, and wants to avoid the embarrassment that a major military defeat would bring. On the other hand, Dr. Zackrison said “I do believe that if the Colombian armed forces were given the order and resources to militarily defeat the FARC and ELN, they could do so without any aid from anyone. However, a military resolution to the conflict does not mean a resolution to the problem that engendered the conflict; this is a political conflict as much as anything, and it requires a political resolution.”

A military solution remains quite popular among Colombians, even if it is an unrealistic alternative to a negotiated settlement. In their heart of hearts, Colombians knows this. Dr. Felbab-Brown argues that “the FARC leadership knows how to fight, not negotiate. It is unclear what their end goal is at this point as it is unrealistic for them to believe that they can overthrow the government […] on the other hand, the ELN is moribund and a deal might occur, even though negotiations have been on and off for years.”

Uribe’s trip to Washington will be full of rhetoric about how the Colombian war can be expeditiously won, in order to convince the Bush administration to keep dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Colombia and win wavering congressional support. However, the sad truth is that, especially after his non-extradition deal with the AUC, the Colombian leader has traded away a key card to negotiating with the guerrillas, if only because they have no confidence in Uribe’s arrangement with the AUC, which they consider to be a giveaway. This, combined with ineffectiveness in the part of the armed forces, may condemn the Colombian civil war to last interminably.

*These opinions belong to Dr. James Zackrison, Research Director for the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, and do not represent the position of the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies or the Department of Defense.


This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Fellow Alex Sánchez
June 7th, 2007
Word Count: 4500

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email

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